Community Transportation

State DOT explains why Wednesday’s Narrows Bridge repairs were an emergency

Posted on February 2nd, 2024 By:

Emergency repairs to the old Tacoma Narrows Bridge backed up traffic to I-5 on Wednesday, Jan. 31, and left commuters wondering what the heck the state Department of Transportation was thinking. The agency explained its reasoning on Thursday.

“We know a lot of people were frustrated. So what happened?” WSDOT wrote in a statement in response to questions from Gig Harbor Now, which it later posted on social media.

This photo provided by the Washington state Department of Transportation shows a worker completing welds on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge joint.

Previous repair failed

During a routine inspection Wednesday morning, workers discovered a previous repair on the 1950 bridge was failing. A hole went straight through the deck and exposed rebar. Continuing to drive over it could widen the pit, damage cars and cause a crash.

The agency deemed placing a steel plate over it a poor solution. That would’ve taken just as long as making a temporary fix and required the speed limit be reduced to 35 mph. The agency decided to perform the repairs immediately.

“We’ve seen previous situations where the exposed rebar punctured the tires of scores of vehicles,” WSDOT stated. “Delaying repairs would have made the situation worse.”

Efforts to notify commuters

Minutes before 11 a.m., WSDOT notified residents via highway message boards, email advisories, mobile app alerts and social media that an emergency repair that was going to mess up the evening commute. The two right lanes on the westbound bridge would be closed from noon to about 7 p.m., but the HOV lane would be open to all traffic.

An image from WSDOT traffic cameras shows backups on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge on Wednesday, Jan. 31.

DOT delivered updates throughout the day. At about 2:30 p.m., the agency warned that congestion was already building approaching the bridge from Tacoma.

Fixing the pothole required spot welding at a bridge joint. Then workers mixed and poured quick-dry concrete. They accomplished that around 6 p.m., according to an alert. All that was left was for it to cure. An all-clear notice went out at 8:04 p.m.

By then, traffic was backed up to I-5 and 38th Street, where a wreck only added to the troubles. Side roads painted traffic apps red as many of the 44,000 drivers who use the westbound bridge each day sought alternative avenues to reach it.

Fingers crossed

“It’s our hope this temporary fix will hold longer than the previous, but this isn’t the last you will hear about making repairs to this bridge,” WSDOT wrote. “Its age requires constant maintenance. Most of that work happens above or below the bridge and we’re often able to schedule lane closures when there’s less traffic. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible Wednesday.

People commiserated on social media, comparing driving/sitting times. Others reminded that this is what it was like every day before the new second bridge opened in July 2007. One joked that we need a third bridge.

“We know how frustrating and challenging it was,” WSDOT wrote. “Safety is our top priority, even if it comes at the price of creating miles-long backups during commute hours.”